A new gallery at the heart of the British Museum gloriously explodes our preconceptionsby Sameer Rahim / November 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
In 1994, off the coast of Salcombe Bay in Devon, divers recovered a remarkable hoard of Moroccan gold. Among the treasures they dredged up were a finger-shaped ingot, several twisted earrings and more than a hundred coins struck for Ahmad al-Mansur, a ruler in 16th-century Marrakesh. Al-Mansur, nicknamed “the golden one” after he conquered wealthy Timbuktu in 1591, corresponded with Elizabeth I over the establishment of the Barbary trading company and sent ambassadors to her court. (Shakespeare is said to have based Othello on one such ambassador.)
The sunken ship itself has long since dissolved in the briny sea so an element of mystery surrounds what it was doing patrolling southwest England: possibly it belonged to north African pirates, perhaps a Dutch trader. What’s clear, though, is that relations between Britain and the Islamic world—mediated through the criss-crossing patterns of trade and diplomacy, as well as by war and conflict—have been significant for much longer than is often assumed.
The Salcombe Bay hoard neatly symbolises what the new British Museum gallery of the Islamic world is trying to achieve. Rather than being presented as distant and aloof, the objects here have a meaningful story attached to them. The style is the same as A History of the World in 100 Objectsby Neil MacGregor, the previous head of the museum, under whose leadership the gallery was commissioned four years ago. The old John Addis gallery of Islamic art, hidden round the back like an afterthought, has been replaced with two larger rooms right at the centre of the building, linking medieval Britain and Renaissance Europe.
Putting Islamic objects at the heart of the museum, rather than at the periphery, reflects recent research into the interweaving of what were once seen as distinct “civilisations.” (Compare Kenneth Clark’s 1969 television series, where the Islamic world was seen as a hostile threat, with the 2018 update which was more interested in how cultures overlapped.) It also surely speaks to the museum’s wish to educate the non-Muslim public about a religious culture that is poorly understood, to put it mildly; as well the need to draw in Britain’s nearly three million-strong Muslim population, who will see their stories reflected in the nation’s imaginative storehouse. Ambitiously, the new gallery attempts to address both…